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To Do This, You Must Know How - Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition

To Do This, You Must Know How

Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition

By Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff
Series: American Made Music Series

Paperback : 9781496802484, 468 pages, 160 b&w photographs, February 2015

A landmark study tracing the current of music education that gave form and style to the black gospel quartet tradition


To Do This, You Must Know How traces black vocal music instruction and inspiration from the halls of Fisk University to the mining camps of Birmingham and Bessemer, Alabama, and on to Chicago and New Orleans. In the 1870s, the Original Fisk University Jubilee Singers successfully combined Negro spirituals with formal choral music disciplines and established a permanent bond between spiritual singing and music education. Early in the twentieth century there were countless initiatives in support of black vocal music training conducted on both national and local levels. The surge in black religious quartet singing that occurred in the 1920s owed much to this vocal music education movement.

In Bessemer, Alabama, the effect of school music instruction was magnified by the emergence of community-based quartet trainers who translated the spirit and substance of the music education movement for the inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods. These trainers adapted standard musical precepts, traditional folk practices, and popular music conventions to create something new and vital

Bessemer's musical values directly influenced the early development of gospel quartet singing in Chicago and New Orleans through the authority of emigrant trainers whose efforts bear witness to the effectiveness of “trickle down” black music education. A cappella gospel quartets remained prominent well into the 1950s, but by the end of the century the close harmony aesthetic had fallen out of practice, and the community-based trainers who were its champions had virtually disappeared, foreshadowing the end of this remarkable musical tradition.


"To Do This, You Must Know How is essential reading for the serious student as well as the armchair enthusiast of African American sacred music. Abbott and Seroff's unquestionable street-level command of the subject, and their passion for the music, make the book a pleasure to explore and a significant contribution to American music scholarship. FIVE OF FIVE STARS."

- Bob Marovich, Journal of Gospel Music

"To Do This, You Must Know How tells the history of the black gospel quartet by examining the story of the great gospel trainers—musicians who taught the singers of the quartets repertory and style. Its primary sources are the black newspapers of the time, and a wide series of interviews conducted by the authors, some going back as far as the late 1970s; an extremely valuable resource brought up from underground by this publication. What a pleasure it is to see how Abbott and Seroff handle the many quotations from interviews—they come as though from the interviewers' mouths. Also in evidence is the author's encyclopedic knowledge of the recorded repertory of these quartets, gained from listening as well as from discographies. To these sources the authors bring a great love for the bedrock American music which illuminates their entire narrative. To Do This, You Must Know How will speak page by page to those who are moved by music from this great tradition."

- Wayne D. Shirley, emeritus senior music specialist, Library of Congress